Wednesday, October 6, 2010

"These people believe in something they call 'God,' and consequently..."

I'm trying to think of a metaphor that captures the... remarkableness... of the... narrative perspective (?)... when NPR covers stories on religion. Take a listen to what I heard this morning on Morning Edition (it's only 4+ minutes):

The story by Barbara Bradley Hagerty, on Bishop Long and the allegations of sex abuse, includes stuff like this:
"...his church holds 'sexual reorientation' seminars which are aimed at, quote 'curing' gay men and lesbians."
Here Hagerty sounds like (again, I'm searching for the right comparison)... like the narrator of a National Geographic special from the 1970s where a sophisticated white anthropologist tries to study, with rigorous lack of bias, a loin-cloth wearing tribe of dark people from Papua New Guinea. It's the same kind of condescending language that has had journalists over the past year writing things like, "...while just 55% of Americans correctly identify President Obama as a Christian." But Hagerty takes condescending pedantry to another level.

My favorite part in this clip is the way the disinterested Hagerty, maintaining the objective tone, reports,
Long's theology comes from a literal reading of the Bible, which condemns gay sex in several places. Butler [the expert professor enlisted by NPR] says unlike many white protestant churches, which have fierce debates about interpreting those passages, most black churches don't.
I love that. I'd like to be privy to those "fierce debates" in white churches: what are they debating? Is it really that difficult to "interpret" the condemnations of homosexuality in the Bible? What happens if you read those as symbolic, non-literal passages? Am I to believe that "white churches" view the references to homosexuality in these passages as metaphors? For what?!

Anyway, I'm not interested in what the Bible says about homosexuality. I just get a kick out of NPR's affected tone of tolerance, its anthropological approach, in reporting on religious people.


  1. well, even if i don't think the conversation is had often enough, there are debates about it. entire conferences in fact.

    there's a pretty good case for the biblical condemnations of male/male sex not really addressing modern homosexuality.

    this 'field observation' tone has never really bothered me. what bothers me more is when it's not used about a "known" culture.

  2. It's just the air quotes around phrases like "sexual reorientation," as if she couldn't bring herself to say it naturally. When I'm talking about the way the government takes my money and gives it to poor sycophants, I don't air-quote phrases like "safety nets," or pretend that I've never heard the phrase before.

    But you're right -- this is a cheap shot.

    I didn't really mean for the post to be about homosexuality; but I would like to read something about that "case for biblical condemnations of male/male sex not addressing modern homosexuality." Sounds interesting.

    Isn't it your general impression, though, that "white churches" (ahem) aren't really debating the interpretation so much as they're debating whether or not to pay attention to such condemnations?

    I mean, I tend to think of Paul as the first follower of Jesus who didn't get it.

  3. I think your main point is right: the language of objectivity is often used as an attempt to distance the speaker from those of whom he speaks, and to thereby indicate to the listener that THEY are not one of US, for THAT is not how WE do things. THis is to say the tone of objectivity is often a tool of marginilization. The whole tenor of this kind of talk--'hmmm...what interesting things these strange creatures do when observed in their natural habitat...'--serves to convey a claim about the odd and alien nature of their subjects' lives and beliefs, in a way that avoids direct contradiction with an outlook purportedly relativist. But nothing is more value-laden than the choice of when to deploy the objective/neutral voice. There is little neutral about THAT.

    Sometimes, though, the condescension is genuinely unintentional. It goes that deep. For a trenchant 2-page analysis of this source for that 'neutral voice' as a means of describing religious life, grab your "Beyond Good and Evil" and read section 58 of the chapter entitled 'The Religious Mood'.
    An excerpt:
    "Every age has it own divine type of naivete, for the discovery of which other ages may envy it; and how much naivete--adorable, childlike, and boundlessly foolish naivete, is involved in this belief of the modern scholar in his own superiority, in the good conscience of his tolerance, in the unsuspecting and simple certainty with which his instinct treats the religious man as a lower and less valuable type--a type beyond, before and ABOVE which he himself has developed..."

    Read the whole thing. Priceless

  4. That is a fun read... but of course, when it was Nietzsche alone saying it, it was novel. When every journalist on NPR orders their morning coffee in that voice, it starts to sound like that is "this indifferent group."

    This was an important point to me on my last blog, and was my motivation for always trying to change most of my academic peers: I thought they were indifferent -- ironically, I tended to see the "Ethics" crowd as especially indifferent. They were hard working and diligent, and would open a door for you if they thought someone was looking -- but on whole they hadn't (I told myself) let their day jobs affect their lives, change their hearts, or improve them.

    But I'm working with clearer vision on this blog: or at least a better-aimed vision (trying to turn it inward).